Authors: Louis Bayard
Tags: #Fiction - Drama, #London/Great Britain, #19th Century
Copyright (c) 2003 by Louis Bayard.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards....
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
NOT SO TINY ANY MORE, that's a fact. Nearly five-eight, last I was measured, and closing in on eleven stone. To this day, people find it hard to reckon with. My sister Martha, by way of example, wouldn't even meet my eye last time I saw her, had to fuss at my shirt buttons and stare at my chest, as though there were two dew-lashed orbs blinking out of my breastbone. Didn't matter I've half a foot on her now, she still wanted to be mothering me, and her with a full brood of her own--six, last I counted--and a well-oiled husband gone two nights for every night he's home, why would she want more bodies to tend? But she does, and old habits, and let the woman have what she wants, so on this last occasion, I dropped to my knees and looked straight at the sky with that look I used to have, it comes back in an instant, and I sang "Annie Laurie." And Martha laughed and boxed my ear and said Out with you, but I think it pleased her, remembering me smaller, everything else smaller, too.
The iron brace was bought by a salvager long ago, and the crutch went for kindling shortly after--quite the ceremonial moment--and all that's left, really, is the limp, which to hear others tell it is not a limp but a lilt, a slight hesitation my right leg makes before greeting the pavement, a metrical shyness. Uncle N told me once to call it a caesura, but this produced looks of such profound unknowing I quickly gave it up. I now refer to it as my stride. My hitch-stride. A lovely forward connotation that I quite fancy, although I can't honestly say I've been moving forwards, not in the last sixmonth. But always better to leave that impression.
I never think of the leg, truthfully, until the weather begins to change. I'll know it's spring, for instance, by the small ring of fire just under the right buttock. Fall is the dull, prodding ache in the hip joint, and winter is a bit of a kick in the knee. The whole kneecap sings for three or four days solid, and no amount of straightening or bending or ignoring will stop the music.
It's winter now.
The twelfth of December, to be specific, a date I am commemorating by staying in bed. I can't say bed rest does the knee any better, but if I lie still long enough, the knee merges with the rest of me and dissipates. Or perhaps I should say everything else dissipates; I forget even how to move my arm.
Many years ago, a doctor with violet nostrils and kippery breath informed my mother that the paralysis in my leg would, left untreated, rise through me like sap, up the thigh and the hip, through the lower vertebrae, the breastbone, the lungs, to settle finally in the heart itself, little orphan bundle, swallowed and stilled forever. Being just six, and possessing an accelerated sense of time, I assumed this would happen very quickly--in three or four hours, let us say-- so I made a special point of saying good-bye to Martha and Belinda because they were rather nicer than Jemmy and Sam, and I told Peter if he wanted my stool, he could well have it, and that night, I lay on my pallet, waiting to go, pinching myself every few seconds to see if the feeling had vanished yet. And I suppose after all that pinching, it did. Only a matter of time, then, before the heart went. I lay there listening in my innermost ear for the final windingdown, wondering what that last, that very last beat would sound like.
Well, you can imagine how alarmed I was to awake the next morning and find the ticker still jigging. Felt a bit cheated, if you must know. And perhaps by way of compensation, I've been dreaming ever since that the long-awaited ending has at last come. I dream I'm back in Camden Town, except now I'm too big for everything: the stool, the bed, the crutch. Even the ceiling crowds a little, I have to stoop or lean against the wall. My feet are rooted to the ground. The sap is rising. I've already lost the feeling in my hands, the last draughts of air are being squeezed from my lungs, and my heart is thumping loud enough to wake the dead--and I realise then that the heart doesn't shut down at all, it keeps beating long after everything else has stopped, it's a separate organism altogether, and in a fury of betrayal, I grab for it, raking my fingers along the rib cage, and my lung squeezes out one last accordion blast of air, and that's when I cry out. I'm never sure whether I've actually cried out or whether it's part of the dream, but it always leaves me feeling exposed in some deep and irreversible fashion, so I must spend the next five minutes inventing plausible excuses for the neighbours who will come pounding on my door any minute, demanding an explanation.
The neighbours never come, of course. I have the great fortune of sleeping in an establishment where loud cries are part of the ambience. Indeed, in Mrs. Sharpe's lodging house, one might scream "Murder!" several times in quick succession and elicit nothing more than indulgent smiles from the adjoining rooms. Murder here being simply another fantasy, and fantasy being the prevailing trade.
The only person within earshot of me most nights is Squidgy, the droop-shouldered, hairyeared gentleman with a tonsure of white hair who comes three times a week to be punished for the infractions he committed in public school half a century ago. Squidgy normally takes the room next to mine, which gives me the confessional privilege of hearing his sins, delivered in a high, breathless quaver.
--And then I gave Podgy a page out of my Latin copybook because he's quite hopeless at indicatives. And I saw Bertie Swineham sneaking out to the grange to bag squirrels, but I swore not to peach. I'm quite keen on the riding boots Simon Bentinck's mother sent him last term, and I've half a mind to pinch 'em. And Willie Robson took me down to the boathouse and showed me his pee-pee....
The lashes come between each sentence, unless the instructress is overhasty with her whipping, in which case whole predicates may be sheared off. Fortunately, Squidgy is usually paired with Pamela, a young woman who combines Prussian efficiency with Hindoo patience. It is rumoured she was once governess to the family of a deputy cabinet minister, by which personage she was seduced and shortly thereafter traduced. This may well be a fiction created for the benefit of patrons, but she surely
like a governess when she's locked in that room with Squidgy.
--Somebody hasn't learnt his conjugations!
I'm atremble just listening. Imagine poor Squidgy, having to croak out the day's lesson.
...ah, no! Please, no!
One night, I got back particularly late and found Squidgy ambling down the corridor, his sins already whipped out of him, his body as naked as the day it came into the world. He was carrying a glass of port and smiling at me like a fellow clubman.
--Evening, Timothy, he drawled.
His head was inclined with a suave deference, and as he passed, I could see Pamela's long red stripes running from the knobs of his shoulders to the backs of his knees, the new lacerations already melding with the old in a raised carpet of livid purple. And in this way I learned that Squidgy had no one waiting home for him, no one who would ever remark on the condition of his backside or even entertain suspicions.
--And a good evening to you, sir, I said.
The honourific tumbled out quite naturally. A testament, perhaps, to the dignity in which men like Squidgy are naturally clothed. And a sign that I am, like Pamela, an employee of Mrs. Sharpe's.
Certainly that is how Squidgy regards me. Many's the time he has nodded my way, commented on the weather, commended me on my peg trousers. We are the best of acquaintances, and we both know full well that if we ever ran into each other in Mayfair, he would cut me dead. Which is to say that even if I did cry out in the night, and even if Squidgy did manage to hear me through the crackings, he'd feel no obligation to interrupt his joys on my behalf.
But then who would? My few surviving relations, to the extent they are able. Uncle N, of course. Captain Gully. Beyond that, silence.
Silence, yes. A fine reason to quit your bed on a December evening, even with the knee still singing, even with the night air catching your breath as soon as you lose it. Keep moving, Tim. Towards the noise! Towards the light!
And no town has more of same than London in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and sixty. London waits for you at every interstice. Come down the stoop of Mrs. Sharpe's any time of day, turn right, and the human traffic of Regent Street sweeps you into its tidal embrace. You dodge a twopenny bus and fall into a coffee stall. You scrape horseshit off your shoe. You hear the clocks in the church towers striking the hours and quarters. You see the season's first sprigs of holly gleaming from the storefronts of poulterers. You walk past the plate-glass windows of Oxford Street, the sweetshops and linen drapers and tobacconists, all shining like glazed hams. You jostle with silk-hatted toffs and ladies in crepe de chine and sailors and financiers and shoeblacks and jugglers and lurkers and nostrum vendors.
And oh, my eye, do you meet some gay ladies. From five in the afternoon to three in the morning, from Langham Place to St. John's Wood. A fellow can't even pass from Piccadilly Circus to Waterloo Place without having his virtue fairly laid siege to. The lacquered hand on your hip, the breast against your shoulder. The thirteen-year-old in pigtails, the bald crone with a moth-worried purple cowl. None of them so nicely dressed, I should say, as Mrs. Sharpe's retinue, but all of them ready to do in a pinch. They come from Sheffield and Birmingham and Belfast and Brussels and Amsterdam. They squawk, they coo, they whisper--a great symphony of sex--and we men, we passing men, are just the staves for their winding melodies.
--Ooh, ain't he handsome? This un's mine, girls!
--Give us a kiss, love.
--Be a sport, Old Sal needs a lick of gin.
I've often thought a blind man could find his way through London simply by gauging the changes in innuendo: mild through Trafalgar Square, less veiled towards the river.
--Care for a fuck?
--Shall I show you my cunt?
Hear enough of these offers, it becomes almost an unpatriotic act to refuse. And look at me! Mostly able-bodied citizen of twenty-three, organs in working order. As good a candidate as the next fellow. But apart from the occasional back-alley groping, I haven't felt much up to it of late. Astonishing, really: the closer they get, the colder grows the cockatoo. And so I'm torn between hurrying on and staying to apologise because, you see, I do want them to know it's not their fault.
--No, truly, you look smashing. With your pretty yellow hair and your lilac garter...a man would have to be mad not to go home with you.
But by then, they've moved on to the next one. And I am left to wonder what has come over me.
come over me?
Not half a year ago, my loins were on military alert. I couldn't breathe a woman's scent without swelling. And now! Can't even get hard with my own hand. My fingers clamp on like limpets, but no divine spark issues from them. I might as well be making sausage.
Some nights, looking for inspiration, I land at Kate Hamilton's Night House, just a few blocks from Mrs. Sharpe's, or better still, at the Argyll Rooms in Great Windmill Street. On the books, Argyll is a dancing academy, but in fact, dancing is merely the thing that happens before the next thing. I'm not much for capering anyway, what with the leg, so if I have spare change, I treat myself to a beer and sit at one of the outside tables. I watch bankers and solicitors in frock coats whirling with beautiful young birds. The band in the far corner is playing a waltz--Vienna by way of Leeds--and the women, still holding glasses of champagne, rustle their satin dresses and lean their heads theatrically on their escorts' shoulders. The attitude of their necks, the droop of their gloved hands--everything conveys the same message: Oh, it's never been this nice with anyone else! Not Mr. Seven-Ten, nor even Mr. Eight-Thirty! And the men seem to believe it, as I would, too, probably, in their place. There's an arousing conviction to these women. The very stillness with which they carry themselves across the floor becomes a form of copulation. And it all makes me intolerably hungry, without giving me the means to feed.
It's a goodly amount of work, you can imagine, being a voyeur. That's why, on Saturday evenings, I suss out a different sort of sensation: I wander over to the New Cut to catch the Lambeth street market. You want light, do you? Not even Heaven has this much light. Every coster in England has his stall here, and every stall has a light: a lamp, a candle, a stove, a brazier. The whole sky aflame with humanity, and a righteous din to match.
--Who'll buy oranges? Sweet, sweet oranges!
--Kerchief for threepence!
Here, more than anywhere else, your classes converge. Buyers, sellers, thieves, gulls. Here is where the day's fog retreats, and the frost drips from the store eaves, and the smell of broiling chestnuts fills the air, and someone's snuff missile whistles past your ear.